Tesla Windshield Wiper Confusion Across News Outlets — Widespread Misreporting Misleads

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Tesla Autopilot in use in the rain with wipers activated. Photo by Marika Shahan, CleanTechnica.

Tesla is often named in the media when accidents occur, but hard data and court rulings often contradict the implications of the headlines.

Unfortunately, a lot of factually wrong articles and reports appeared in recent days about a German court ruling (OLG Karlsruhe 1 Rb 36 Ss 832/19) that has to do with a Tesla driver who had an accident in heavy rain and claimed it was the fault of the vehicle’s controls.

The judge sentence reads: 

“The touchscreen permanently installed in the Tesla vehicle is an electronic device within the meaning of Section 23(1a) (1) and (2) of the Road Traffic Regulations, the operation of which is permitted to the driver only under the conditions laid down in that provision, irrespective of the purpose of the driver in operating it. 

“The adjustment of the functions necessary for the operation of the motor vehicle via touchscreen (here: adjustment of the wiping interval of the windscreen wiper) is therefore only permitted if it is associated with a brief turning of the view towards the screen, adapted to the road, traffic, visibility and weather conditions, while at the same time turning the view away from the traffic.”

The driver defended himself in front of the court that the accident happened when he tried to adjust the wiper frequency on the vehicle display. Because of the heavy rain, he said, he could not properly see the street, and to adjust the wipers required him to look at the display, and when he did that, he unintentionally left the road and the accident happened. He concluded that the accident was not his fault but due to the wiper control access on the display, which forced him to divert his attention.

The court ruled that the display in the Tesla is like a display on your smartphone, but firmly installed, and that you only can use it in a safe way for a short period of time. 

The media took that sentence to mean that it is illegal to use the display controls in a Tesla and that the consequences are that Tesla needs to change the controls and install a manual wiper control as you find in other vehicles (including the Tesla Model S and Model X). Some media even reported that Tesla put the wiper control on the display for cost reduction reasons and by doing that compromised on safety, health, and people’s lives.

My belief is that everybody who has a Tesla should learn how to fully use its controls before operating the car. There are several ways to engage or adjust the wipers in a Tesla Model 3.

#1 — The driver could have used voice control to increase the wiper frequency in the situation he was in without taking his eyes from the road for a second.

#2 — He could press the manual wiper start button on the stick beside the driver wheel a few times even if it only starts a one-time wiper move, and in the meantime try to find a safe place to stop the vehicle. To do that, he does not need to look away from the road.

#3 — As an alternative, he could have engaged Autopilot, which keeps the car reliably dead center in the middle of the lane even in heavy rain and allows you to adjust the wiper frequency on the display in a safe way.

The driver did have 3 safe options to avoid the accident, but instead chose a fourth option and spent too much time doing it, which is illegal, and caused an accident.

Obviously, and unfortunately for him, the driver did not know how to use the vehicle fully, did not think through all of the options, or decided to use the display in an illegal way, which can indeed be dangerous in heavy rain if you divert your attention for too long away from the road. (A driver who is used to the display’s wiper controls could, of course, have used the display safely and legally by doing it quickly.)

Because of taking the illegal route, the judge gave the driver a fine and withdrew his driver’s license for a month.

In other words, what the judge was trying to make clear is that you need to keep your attention on the road, and when you look too long at a display — be it your smartphone or a car display — that is illegal. If the driver uses the display for a short time, though, that is of course legal.

The court sentence was appealed by the driver but then confirmed by the higher court, OLG. A fine of €200 and a 1-month driver’s license withdrawal was put into effect.

Although the driver only received a fine, the media in Germany and also some international media tried to conclude out of the sentence something that was never said. The constructed storyline is that Tesla has to change its vehicle controls, that the usage of the display is illegal, and that drivers risk fines and losing their driver’s licenses when they use a Tesla.

All of that is wrong and can only be described as FUD (fear, uncertainty, and doubt). All Tesla vehicles in Germany are authorized by the KBA (German Federal Association for Vehicles), and the judge did not mention anything about an illegal or unauthorized vehicle.

The court ruled the driver was guilty of not having used the vehicle properly, and that’s why the fine goes to the driver and not to Tesla.

We have seen with Tesla many cases in which drivers try to make the automaker guilty for an accident. Not long ago some drivers crashed their Tesla into a garage wall claiming it was the fault of the vehicle and not unintentional acceleration. It turned out that they pressed the accelerator too strongly or thought it was the brake and crashed against the wall. These were perhaps drivers who were used to gas/diesel vehicles and should have taken their time to learn how a Tesla works. 

Not long ago, Tesla drivers involved in accidents claimed that Autopilot was engaged and caused the accidents. Tesla proved with data that Autopilot was not engaged, and the drivers received guilty sentences.

There are plenty of examples of cases where drivers either did not read how to use the vehicles and their controls and systems properly or claimed the vehicle or Tesla was guilty. Most did not take their time to learn how to use the new technology, or simply searched for an excuse for their own failures. Naturally, that is a tempting thing to do.

The accident data Tesla recently released shows that its vehicles are almost 10 times less likely than the average American vehicle to get into an accident if Autopilot is engaged. A Tesla is safer than any other vehicle regardless of whether Autopilot is engaged or not. That does not mean that some drivers don’t learn to use them properly and some don’t want to accept their own operational mistakes.

Many people are indeed not used to using voice control, not used to using a display in a vehicle, and not used to advanced driving assist systems. Humans need time to adjust, and they should take their time to learn how to do it safely. That’s been true for the evolution of gas/diesel vehicles and it is still true for electric vehicles.

It is fully okay to take your time to learn a new technology, but it is not okay to claim a manufacturer was guilty for something if it wasn’t.

It is fully okay for an editor of a media outlet to not understand how a Tesla and its controls and systems work, but it is not okay to write about them if you don’t know or understand them.

I am happy to offer my time and I am convinced many other Tesla owners are willing to do the same to help writers and editors in the media to understand in a proper way how a Tesla works to avoid further incorrect reports and misleading articles.

Every media outlet editor or journalist that does not take this offer and reports in a wrong way — whether motivated to do so or not — is presenting incorrect information (which is counter to their mission) and confirming a false narrative that some of their readers may have adopted.

If the chief editors and owners of media outlets accept such behavior and reporting of frequently incorrect facts, and unwillingness to do proper research, then I think what you, dear reader, should do is avoid their publications.

We are living in a time when truly incorrect and misleading news can be found everywhere. Most of that may be caused by not knowing better, having short deadlines, and having tight budgets, but to routinely not be willing to fulfill your duty as a journalist or editor before you publish is irresponsible and against business ethics.

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Alex Voigt

Alex Voigt has been a supporter of the mission to transform the world to sustainable carbon free energy for 40 years. As an engineer, he is fascinated with the ability of humankind to develop a better future via the use of technology. With 30 years of experience in the stock market, he is invested in Tesla [TSLA], as well as some other tech companies, for the long term.

Alex Voigt has 53 posts and counting. See all posts by Alex Voigt